Author Archives: Alan Noonan

About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.

“The disparity in years between you”: A random letter about marriage from nineteenth century Philadelphia

In 15 years, she will be in the prime of life – and you will, most probably, be a feeble old man.

While combing through collections in archives I often come across random letters and documents that may be interesting independent of their relevance to the project at hand. One such letter was in the Malcolm Hay Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I came across it during a fellowship with the Library Company and decided to transcribe the letter and present it here in its entirety for those who might be interested in questions related to marriage, reputation and social etiquette in nineteenth century Pennsylvania.

The letter in question was sent by Peter Hay in July 1858 to his son Henry Hay. The collection is named after Henry’s brother, Malcolm. A prominent family of lawyers, the Hays were influential Democratic Party members at both a local and state level. Elegantly written, the letter is essentially a warning to Henry from his father to break-off a whirlwind romance with a much younger girl, aged seventeen. Peter warns his son that this blossoming romance and the imminent wedding might be a “mistake”, a possible “false step”, and that the disgrace of such a marriage would not only reflect upon the couple, but also upon Henry’s children and “indeed on all your relatives”.

His father’s reflection on the union grows ever more pessimistic as the letter continues and he dwells further on the age gap between the pair. He notes that his son, aged forty-two, was a full twenty-five years older than his seventeen-year-old fiancée. Despite the girl’s mother having given her approval of the marriage Peter appeals the their greater life experiences stating that both he and his future mother-in-law should understand the differences in ages means there will be difficulty on the physical side of their relationship, if not immediately then in the near future. He cleverly explains this in a story about another colleague who married a woman twenty years younger, and, when asked if she is happy she reportedly replied she was as happy as could be expected “considering the difference in our ages” (emphasis in original), a fairly overt, if polite, reference to their sex lives.

Peter saves his most devastating argument for last noting that “Mrs. R” will be his children’s mother as well as his wife and questions how she is expected to fulfil this duty when his own children are as old as her. How can a young and inexperienced girl act as “their moral instructor and the guide and director in household matters”? He continues and writes that:

…the willingness of a girl of that age after a few weeks acquaintance with a gentleman nearly old enough to be her grandfather, to assume such a fearful responsibility, would of itself satisfy me, that she has no adequate conception of the position she decrees to occupy…

Upon first reading the letter might seem overly harsh, and though the message was delivered in a blunt manner, it was also couched in affectionate and diplomatic language. The letter opens with the father acknowledging that he cannot dictate his son’s actions simply advise him as “a father and a friend”. The final paragraph is quite touching and he tells his son the letter is not designed to “wound your feelings” and if there was anything in the letter that caused offence, “I trust you will forgive me”. It is hard to imagine that his son was not hurt by the letter, but still, Peter simply seems to be telling him what everyone else in society was thinking, trying to make him aware about the reality of their situation.

Further research reveals some interesting background to the letter and Henry’s decision on the engagement. Henry Hay’s first wife, Mary Ann Hay was only three years younger than himself. She died in her early thirties from an unknown and drawn out illness, probably tuberculosis. They had an Irish domestic servant in the US census of 1850 with the unlikely name Biddy Kline. There are two possible explanations, the first is that the census taker misheard her surname. Possibly he heard an Irish surname like Kane and wrote a name he was more familiar with, Kline. The second, and less likely explanation, is that the domestic servant is pretending to be Irish in order to gain employment in the household. Irish women, although caricatured for their tendency to work as domestic servants, were generally sought after because they spoke English, and thus held a significant advantage over other female continental European immigrants to the United States. The second explanation would also explain the weird appearance of the letter P on its own just before Ireland in the birthplace column for Biddy, and might indicate he was about to write Poland. A more likely cause is that the census taker was about to write Pennsylvania as he did for the previous six entries before he was corrected that Biddy was born in Ireland.

The next census in 1860, taken two years after the letter was sent reveals that the marriage went ahead despite Peter’s objections and the couple were living in Bristol Township in Pennsylvania. The census also reveals that certain details in the letter are accurate. Peter was not exaggerating when he said that the children would be older than their mother-to-be. Their ages in the census reveal that Henry’s eldest son, Henry Junior, was nineteen at the time of the letter, a full two years older than his fiancée. Emma, the first name of “Mrs R.”. She was actually pregnant at the time of the census and would give birth to another Emma (they weren’t very creative when it came to children’s names) in December of that year. This child grew up, married and eventually died in the same area, passing away at home with her husband, Otis Vroom, caring for her in a house a few short miles from where she was born. The cause of death was Uremia, and the date of her passing, aged 54, was almost one hundred years ago, on 14 June 1915. It would be nice to think that centenaries might allow us to contemplate equally on the lives of the vast bulk of humanity as well as the massacre of hundreds of thousands in a futile conflict. This letter, a random letter I came across by chance, would have meant the world to Emma Hay Vroom, whose existence hinged on the decision of her father and mother to fly in the face of familial reputation and social convention in the year 1858.

The letter in its entirety follows.

Philadelphia July 7th 1858

I felt it my duty, a few days ago, frankly to express my regret at your contemplated marriage, and have some of the reasons upon what that sentiment was founded. I have since concluded, in order to avoid misapprehension, to present them in a more condensed & desirable form, for your serious consideration. I assume no right to dictate to you on that or any other subject. I only claim the privileges of a father and a friend to offer my best advice. It is for you to accept or reject it. You are my first born son, and are the only surviving offspring of the wife of my youth. I have almost reached the ordinary limit of human life, and in the course of events, I expect soon to be called hence. I have looked to you as the friend and counsellor of my children after my death; and feel that any false step made or any disgrace incurred by you would cast its reflection on them- and indeed on all your relatives.

I repeat, what I said to you the other day that in my judgment your own happiness and that of your children required that you should be married – and the sooner the better; but that the utmost caution should be used in selecting a suitable person to occupy the position of wife and mother. A mistake on this point will be fatal. Your happiness and the present and future destiny of your children are involved in the issue. Do the conditions that are absolutely required for an able and satisfactory discharge of their duties, meet in Mrs. R.? I think, not. Look at the disparity in years between you. By the record you are nearly 42 years old; in constitutional vigor, not less than 50. Mrs. R. I have reason to believe, is under 17. In 15 years, she will be in the prime of life – and you will, most probably, be a feeble old man. This is a grave consideration for both parties.

Will she be willing to be tied for years to a man as good as dead? Are you willing, for the sake of a temporary gratification, to expose a young woman to the temptation, and your own honor to the risk of such a state of things? Consider the matter well. I have been told, in substance, that her mother has expressed it as her daughters sentiment, that if she loved a man she did not care about his age – even if he were 70! In the young lady this may be ignorance or romance, and a few short years, or even months would forever dissipate the illusion; but her mother and you know better…

A distinguished gentleman of this city, with whom you are personally acquainted, at the age of 46 or 48, married a beautiful and accomplished young lady of about 20, now deceased – A short time after her marriage, a lady acquaintance of mine called on her, and after the usual compliments, inquired how she liked married life? She relied that her husband was as kind, affectionate and attentive as possible, and that she was as happy as could be expected, “considering the difference in our ages.” The feelings, tastes and habits of early youth and mature age are different. Nature intended them to be so; and we cannot violate her laws with impunity. This lady was a faithful wife; has her children now nearly grown up; but I doubt whether she was ever happy. Her husband is, even now, a hale, vigorous old man.

You have a family of seven children – one of whom is little more than an infant, and three of them will require the constant and vigilant supervision of a discreet, intelligent and experienced woman, during the next few years, the most critical period of their lives, within which their character, for good or evil, is to be found.

The long continued illness of their mother and your inability from absence to devote the necessary time and attention to their education (I mean education in the largest sense) have greatly increased the difficulty of the task that will devolve on the lady to whose care they may be committed – a task, which I repeat without the fear of contradiction, no girl of 16 or 17, unless possessed of very extraordinary mental and educational endowments is at all competent to fulfil; [sic] and the willingness of a girl of that age after a few weeks acquaintance with a gentleman nearly old enough to be her grandfather, to assume such a fearful responsibility, would of itself satisfy me, that she has no adequate conception of the position she decrees to occupy, and is so anxious to be secure and comfortable home as to risk every thing else, regardless of consequences. I presume that Supt. R. Is a respectable, industrious, and attractive in appearance; but still she is a mere girl, who instead of being places at the head of a large family of children, some as old as herself, ought to be at school- a girl not a whit superior if indeed she is equal in intellect and experience to several of your children, of whom you are thinking of selecting her as their moral instructor and the guide and director in household matters. I should suppose, that by the time you were so far awake to the sober realities of life, as to be in no danger, in view of all of your responsibilities of being fascinated by the smiles or the pretty face of a mere girl- so far at least as to be driven to abandon all the proprieties of life. Am I mistaken?

So far as I can learn, all your relatives by blood or affinity, without exception, regard the step you propose taking, with the deepest regret and mortification. They view it as in every way unsuitable, and fraught with disaster to yourself and your children; and in this sentiment, it appears to me that every right minded man or woman, not blinded by prejudice or passion, will concur.

I have written to you thus, my dear son, with a sad heart- not to wound your feelings, or to inflict or injury on any human being; but under a solemn conviction, that it is my duty to warn you of what I verily believe is an impending danger, and to implore you not to do an act which, I feel opposed, will be a continual source of the deepest regret and remorse as long as you live. This is the first time in your life that I have ever appealed to you on any subject. You know that it is not my course to do so, and that I am not easily moved. If I have said any thing that you may think harsh of unkind, I trust you will forgive me. I have no motive in addressing you but to guard you against a threatened evil and to promote your best interest and that of your family, with which my own [cross] and that of these I love are closely identified. Your affectionate father, Pete Hay To Henry Hay esq.


Malcolm Hay Papers #1788 Box 104 Folder 3. 1850 U.S. Census, Middletown Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, p. 307. 1860 U.S. Census, Bristol Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, p. 33. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, File No. 13762.

This research was facilitated by the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

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Iowa’s first execution: The shameful story of Peg-leg O’Conner

When the state of Iowa is mentioned most people think of rolling prairies, but the history of this part of the ‘American Heartland’ also has an Irish hue to it. In the nineteenth century many Irish worked the coal mines scattered throughout the region which acted as fuel stations for the rapidly spreading railroad network. Even before the railroads stretched across the continent there were important lead mines being worked near the frontier town of Dubuque. Linked to the early history of Dubuque was the story of a Cork-born amputee named Patrick O’Conner who worked in the mines and who happens to be recorded as the first execution in the history of the state of Iowa in 1834.[1] Of course at the time Iowa was neither a state nor did it have the judicial authority to sentence a man to death. So, why exactly was a one-legged Cork miner killed in 1834 in Iowa?

O’Conner’s earliest recorded misfortune occurred travelling to Galena, Illinois on a riverboat. He fractured one of his legs in some unexplained accident and the injury was serious enough that the leg had to be amputated. Some locals in Galena sympathized with O’Conner’s predicament and organized a collection to buy him a wooden leg and to pay the doctor’s bills, but their goodwill soured when O’Conner ‘begun to display a brawling and quarrelsome disposition’.[2] If it is difficult to imagine fighting a peg-legged Corkman, we can at least imagine that this disposition might have resulted from his despondence over the loss of his leg and a probable increase in alcohol consumption either for the pain or the anguish. Perhaps the man had always had a ‘quarrelsome disposition’ that rubbed people the wrong way.

Eventually the townspeople of Galena drove him out of the town after two incidences involving a local merchant named John Brophy. Apparently O’Conner had shot at Brophy through a window and then Brophy said he saw O’Conner intentionally set fire to his own cabin, causing serious damage to the surrounding buildings.[3] It seems O’Conner had some sort of financial difficulties with the store owner, but we have such limited information on the episode the exact details of what happened are somewhat obscured. In 1833 O’Conner fled to the lead mines of Dubuque and entered a partnership with another Irishman, George O’Keaf [sic]. The pair shared a small wooden hut without incident for a year and then on 19 May 1834, in what seems to have been an unfortunate accident, O’Conner shot O’Keaf when he tried to force his way into their locked cabin returning from work.

Another miner who accompanied O’Keaf back to his cabin offers us the only account of what happened and tells us that O’Keaf asked to be let in and O’Conner replied ‘Don’t be in a hurry I’ll open it when I get ready’.[4] A few minutes passed and as it had started to rain O’Keaf tried to enter by breaking the lock on the door and O’Conner shot him. The fatal shooting appears to have been a tragic misunderstanding. O’Conner appears to have mistakenly believed that it was someone from Galena, possibly Brophy, trying to kill him. O’Keaf was a young and popular 22-year-old miner and O’Conner proved spectacularly unrepentant and stubborn. When people arrived on the scene and asked why he had shot him he replied with a glib ‘That is my business’.[5] His stubbornness continued at the impromptu ‘trial’ in Dubuque and when asked to select his counsel said, ‘Faith, and I’ll tind [sic] to my own business’. Later when asked if innocent or guilty he said, ‘I’ll not deny that I shot him, but ye have no laws in the country, and cannot try me’.[6] Legally speaking O’Conner was entirely correct; federal law did not yet extend into the newly acquired territory and the Governor of Missouri rejected any responsibility for the trial saying it should take place in a court that had legal standing in the neighboring state of Illinois. However, in previous cases men sent to trial in Illinois were released because the crime had taken place outside the state’s jurisdiction. This contributed to the decision to unofficially try O’Conner in Iowa where the jury found him guilty.[7]  In this way it seems that O’Conner was sentenced to hang because he served to purpose of advertising to the wider community that Dubuque was a town that would not let the law get in the way of some harsh summary ‘justice’.

The arrival of a priest, Rev. Fitzmaurice, from Galena further ratcheted up the tense atmosphere in the town. He strongly denounced the trial as ‘illegal and unjust [sic]’ after which the sizable Irish Catholic presence in Dubuque ‘became cool on the subject and… intended to take no further part in the matter’.[8] Strangely, even though the account in the Annals of Iowa states that the jury had set the execution for 20 June 1834, commenting on the crowd, it states:

Up to this we did not believe that O’Conner would be executed. It was in the power of the Rev. Mr. Fitzmaurice to save him, and he was anxious to do so. Had he appealed to the people in a courteous manner, and solicited his pardon upon the condition that he would leave the country, we confidently believe that they would have granted it; but he imprudently sought to alienate the feelings of the Irish people from the support of an act of public justice, which they, in common with the people of the mines, had been endeavoring to consummate. This had the effect of closing the avenues to any pardon that the people might have previously been willing to grant (emphasis added).[9]

It is obvious here that the writer of this historical account realized the contradiction in telling the tale of Iowa’s first execution. The sentence was neither legal nor deserved. Why exactly would anyone believe that O’Conner might not be executed after receiving that sentence and, more importantly, why would the tone of the priest’s appeals matter one way or the other? The writer tries to shift the blame from the people involved in the trail to the priest. A direct appeal to the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, to clarify whether the townspeople of Dubuque had the right to sentence this man to die returned a response validating O’Conner’s position and stating that the laws of the United States did not yet apply to the new territories. Even this statement did not shift the determination of Dubuque’s leaders to kill O’Conner and the President in his reply perhaps sensed their bloodlust as he ended his letter with the statement that ‘he thought the pardoning power was invested in the power that condemned’, indicating his hope that the people of Dubuque would show mercy.[10]

This was not to be the case though and whether or not poor O’Conner’s Irishness had played a part in his death sentence, it was about to play a part in shortening his life quite dramatically when:

A few days before the execution, a rumor got afloat that a body of two hundred Irishmen were on their way from Mineral Point, intending to rescue O’Conner on the day of execution. Although this report proved not to be founded in truth, it had the effect of placing the fate of O’Conner beyond the pardoning control of any power but force.[11]

An armed mob of townspeople, moved by their enthusiasm for the execution and fearful that their prize might be snatched from their grasp, decided to lynch O’Conner rather than keep him in jail or give him an official trial in another state. As O’Conner was driven in a cart to the gallows the priest consoled him, offering him confession and last rites while the crowd shouted obscenities at the pair. A fife played the ‘Dead March’ and over one thousand spectators watched the hanging, after which a public collection was taken to pay for costs of execution, the coffin, and the burial.[12] Sympathetic contemporary newspapers and historical accounts detail the event and other vigilante lynchings throughout the American West with a thin veil of legality and solemnity in their efforts to legitimise their actions. In reality these executions served dual purposes as both perverse forms of entertainment for some and as a form of intimidation for others.[13]

After the account of the execution of O’Conner in the Annals of Iowa the writer sought to assuage any concerns by ending with the following lines: ‘Immediately after this, many of the reckless and abandoned outlaws, who had congregated at the Dubuque Mines, began to leave for sunnier climes. The gleam of the Bowie knife was no longer seen in the nightly brawls of the street, nor dripped upon the sidewalk the gore of man; but the people began to feel more secure in the enjoyment of life and property.’[14] Strange justification for executing a man because of, what was by all accounts, an accidental shooting. Perhaps the real goal of the execution was to send a strong message to the Irish community, as well as the wider public, that some influential townspeople had the power to execute anyone who committed a crime in their town. It was a lesson that would be repeated against a wide range of ethnic groups throughout the nineteenth century across the vast expanses of the United States.

[1] Eliphalet Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, Annals of Iowa, (State Historical Society, Iowa City, 1865), Vol. III-V, pp. 566-74.

[2] Ibid. p. 567.

[3] In another of the firsts for Iowa, an Irishman named Nicholas Carroll was apparently the first person to unfurl the Star Spangled Banner in the region in 1834. Ibid. p. 528.

[4] Ibid. p. 568.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 569. The Jury was composed of six Americans, three Irishmen, one English, one French and one Scottish man.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 570. This aspect of O’Conner’s execution tends to be ignored in accounts, for example when the Iowa Recorder detailed the historic event in the run up to the tenth execution in Iowa. See Iowa Recorder, 7 March 1923.

[9] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, p. 570.

[10] Ibid. p. 571.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. pp. 572-3.

[13] Regarding a similar incident, Frank Fargo wrote in the Daily Alta California of the Vigilance Committee hanging of James P. Casey in 1856, ‘the whole living throng moved forward with scarcely an audible voice, save that of the officers in command. A solemnity and stillness pervaded the whole party that at once was significant of the might and power in those brave hands’. Frank Fargo, A True and Minute History of the Assassination of James King of William, and the Execution of Casey and Cora (Whitton, San Francisco, 1858); David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s (Stanford University Press, Stanford), p. 95-6.

[14] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’. pp. 573-4.

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The Tramping Worker: questions on transience and organisation in America, 1880-1920

I have done a good deal of running around in America seeking the best place, but all my sorrow I have lost by it. The American country is gone.

– Letter from Patrick Kearney to John Kearney, 21 December 1890[1]

Migration is often perceived as a two-stage journey: departure and arrival. The letter quoted above from Patrick Kearney to his brother reveals that often a migrant’s journey did not end at the first port of call. His pitiable disappointment at having little to show for all his years of “running around” challenges the myth of the American dream. As one historian notes “the emigration movement…is heroic to look back on… but for the individual emigrant it was often a personal tragedy.”[2] Historians have challenged the assumption of destined success, but many continue to focus on either the negative or positive experiences of migration, neglecting the breadth of possible outcomes and opinions for a more limited binary either/or explanation. Different feelings on this movement can be found within the same ethnic group and social class. Irish-born Seamus Ó Muircheartaigh and Kate Flanagan both moved to several countries and states across America in search of work but their views display a certain dissonance. In “Mo chiach mar a thána” (“Alas that I ever came”) Ó Muircheartaigh wrote  “Sin mar a chaitheas-sa tamall dem shaol,/Ó bhaile go baile gan toinnte ar mo thaobh” (That’s how I spent part of my life,/Going from place to place, with no company at my side).[3] Some held a much more positive opinion, like Kate Flanagan who wrote to Mike, her brother-in-law in Ireland, telling him that “I can’t help but think it would be better for all the family in Ireland to come to this country,” humorously adding “if it was only to get away to a more agreeable climate.”[4]  Remembering that we can move beyond a dichotomy of good or bad, or immigration as from origin to destination, would allow for more novel attempts to explore the varied experiences among different ethnic groups, and more importantly, to highlight and explain the importance of transience among immigrants in the Unites States in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. How frequently did people move from one place to another? What were the impediments or facilitators of this movement? Was transience purely an economic decision? How were communities affected by the changes over time and place? What were the networks that sustained them and how were these networks in turn sustained?

Of course you can question, why should we focus on immigrants and mobility when looking at American workers? The first response to that question is that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed a huge movement of people to the American continent enabling the industrialisation of the United States. We should keep in mind a notable recent work documenting this process, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America by Aristide R. Zolberg, which reveals that the popular image of uncontrollable waves of people entering the US is a false one and that the American government was capable, when willing, to limit this movement.[5] Another answer to this question lies in the large numbers of people. While only 13 percent of the population of the United States are classed as foreign-born in 1880, 42 percent of those engaged in manufacturing or extraction industries were immigrants.[6] This number grows into an overwhelming majority if we include the children of foreign-born and African Americans. The importance of immigrants in the development of American industry is hard to overstate.

Simultaneously there are problems with categories, as people are often grouped into broad headings based on religion, nationality or ethnic group that might not be particularly useful. If we scratch the surface of these broad communities and we find further important differences; northern and southern Italians, Corkonians and Fardowners, Cornish and English to name a few. Nationally based fraternities (e.g. the Ancient Order of Hibernians in the case of the Irish) tried to foster ethnic cooperation and promote a hyphenated identity reconciling their Old World origins with their lives in the New World, a somewhat paradoxical effort, and again we should try to bear in mind to local complexities when detailing particular groups. Likewise leaders in trade unions also engaged in contradictory efforts to remain loyal to both their own ethnic group while promoting unity with workers from other backgrounds. Immigrants also exhibited similar diversity in their patterns of movement. ‘New immigrants’ from eastern and southern Europe bucked earlier immigration trends, with larger numbers returning ‘home’. Historians estimate that fifty percent of Italians returned home between 1908 and 1923, compared to single-digit repatriation rates for Russian Jews and the Irish.[7] Contemporaries noted this difference at the time with usage of the label ‘sojourners’ rather than ‘immigrants’, but few historians have addressed the question of how this affected their views of movement and migration.[8] A continuing reexamination of immigrants bearing these problems in mind might reveal that immigrants had a more nuanced sense of self and association than historians have previously ascribed to them.

Sixty-three years ago the historian Eric Hobsbawm opened his article “The Tramping Artisan” with the statement “the story of nineteenth-century labor is one of movement and migration.”[9] While his article represents an attempt to explain the personal and social impact of frequent dislocation on skilled journeymen in Britain, the premise applies equally to immigrant workers in America. The development of transnational history has seen a reevaluation of borders as the defining parameters of historical phenomena and the scholarship related to them. Some of the exciting new work on Irish America includes Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the American West 1860-1910, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race and The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900, and they each forcefully challenge traditional historical assumptions on the Irish in the West, Irish identity and organizations.[10]  Transnationalism in turn has led to the reexamination of people’s movement, formerly through the prism of migration, through the more broad term of mobility.[11]

Many questions are waiting to be answered by future projects. Some questions that can be raised about American studies follow, but many other similar questions could be asked of other sub-fields of nineteenth and twentieth century history. What effect did the staggered migration have on working-class ethnic communities? Did it impede or encourage ethnic, fraternal or union organization? How did the immigrant experience in eastern cities differ from the American West? Were there significant similarities or differences in both the experience and perception of mobility between ethnicities, occupations or classes? Some of these questions have been partly answered in relation to specific groups, for example Liping Zhu and Sue Fawn Chung’s pioneering work on the Chinese communities in the American West.[12]

Simultaneous with the advent of these new approaches has been the comparable decline of the study of labor and trade union history and in response historians should try to reengage with the history of workers, offering fresh perspective and utilizing the new historiographical approaches that have emerged in the intervening decades. Craig Calhoun recently presented an important challenge to labor history in The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements, arguing that not all social movements were inherently progressive and that these groups expressed a much broader spectrum of goals and beliefs, often more conservative, than historians have credited to them. It can be hoped that further research will uncover more stories of people’s lives, with their accompanying perceptions and convictions and help us determine whether these are valid assertions. For my part I fully intend to keep digging for answers.



[1] Séamus De Búrca (ed.), The Soldier’s Song: The Story of Peadar Ó Cearnaigh (Dublin: P.J. Bourke, 1957), p. 251.

[2] Terry Coleman, Passage to America: A history of emigrants from Great Britain and Ireland to America in the mid-nineteenth century (1972: London: Hutchinson & County), p. 248.

[3] Seán Ó Dubhda, Duanaire duibhneach : i bailiú d’amhránaibh agus de phíosaibh eile filidheachta a ceapadh le tuairim céad bliain i gCorca Dhuibhne, agus atá fór i gcuimhne agus i mbéaloideas na ndaoine ann (Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig Díolta Foillseacháin Rialtais, 1976),132-133. English translation by Dr Bruce D. Boling, Brown University, from Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. xiii.

[4] Kate Flanagan to Mike in Ireland was more positive Napa, California to her brother-in-love, Mike 31 March, 1899. Flanagan Family Letters. Private collection generously shared with me by Professor Kerby A. Miller, University of Missouri, Columbia.

[5] Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[6] U.S. Tenth Census, 1880, Report on the Manufactures of the United States (Washington, D.C, 1882), pp. 17, 36.

[7] Mark Wyman, Round-trip America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 9-12.

[8] Two important exceptions are the collection of essays in Dirk Hoerder (ed.) Labor Migration in the Atlantic Economies. The European and North American Working Classes During the Period of Industrialization (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985) and Donna R Gabaccia, Italy’s many diasporas (Seattle : University of Washington Press, 2000).

[9] E. J. Hobsbawn, “The Tramping Artisan,” The Economic History Review, New Series 3 (1951): pp. 299-320.

[10] David M. Emmons, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West 1845-1910 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), Bruce Nelson, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012) and Niall Whelehan, The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[11] Transnationalism does not ignore nationalism or the nation-state rather it prompts historians to simultaneous consider “differing geographic scales – the local, the national, and the transnational.” Ian Tyrell, “American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History,” American Historical Review 96 (1991):  p. 1033.

[12]  Liping Zhu, A Chinaman’s Chance: The Chinese on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1997); Sue Fawn Chung, In Pursuit of Gold: Chinese American Miners and Merchant in the American West (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011).

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